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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

GMOnsters! Genetically Modified Cannabis - by Citizen Jay

     I’m usually the one who hits the grocery store in my household.  It’s fun, I’ve got the time, I like to cook and eat, and I’ve developed fairly decent shopping habits over the years.  My late brother-in-law once told me that if you were having trouble deciding how to spend your hard earned pay, invest in the food you eat.  It may seem simple, but given the choice between buying quality food for your family and spending on other things, like for example a monthly family gym membership, choose the food.  It goes far beyond, “you are what you eat” to what you eat can really affect the way you feel—in every way: mentally, physically, and spiritually.  So make those choices well.  [And drink plenty of water.]

     Seems simple enough until you actually hit the grocery store.  There was a time when I was able to shop with more carte blanche than is available to me these days.  Like most, I suppose, our family’s economic wellbeing took a downturn sometime around 2007…but I digress.  The days of shopping at Whole Paycheck are long past for my family except for the occasional specialty item or quick turn in for a meal on the go.  We’re still fortunate enough to live in a large city with several other food chains from which to choose.  And we live in a part of town that offers multiple outlets.  But this is not an article about food choices or the food deserts that exist in many large cities around the country. [Though I can’t help but slip in a reference or two whenever the opportunity presents itself just to make sure people are aware that such things DO exist.]

      Let me take your imagination down the cereal aisle, if I may.  For you see, it is there that the choices become so overwhelming that finding ANY option that is right for your family seems a nightmarish, Herculean task.  Most of the aisle is taken up by crap.  You know what I’m talking about; the mass produced and marketed to the masses boxes of grain slapped with the faces of cartoon characters promising “healthy” goodness…they’re great!  [GOD I loved my Lucky Charms as a kid…]  These I nonchalantly pass over moving to the last little bit of aisle—the 7/8 at the end where the granolas, muesli, and “natural” brands live (right next to the oatmeal).  Ah, cereal heaven.  The place where all things good and crunchy are purported to lie.  The operative word in that last sentence being “lie.”  It literally broke my heart when I learned that the majority of my favorite granolas, muesli, and “natural” brands were actually made with GMOs.  Ew.  When was the last time you tried to find a breakfast cereal without added sugar?  Or any kind of corn syrup?  It’s difficult enough.  But when you find those things and then learn that they contain GMO products?  I dunno.  For me it’s still a difficult pill to swallow.  I don’t want to eat genetically modified organisms.
     There is still a ton of misinformation out there on this topic.  And I don’t profess to be an expert—or even well versed conversationally.  But this I do know.  We’re not talking about modification through selection here.  GMOs are not made through breeding.  They’re made by splicing.  A GMO is an organism that has been altered genetically by manipulating, deleting, or inserting material into its DNA structure.  It’s SCIENCE extraordinaire!  And I commend the effort!  I just don’t want to eat it.

     And I don’t want to smoke it either.  Genetically modified Cannabis?  At this point, you may as well ask me, “What the hell are you talking about?”  Because at this point, thankfully, it doesn’t exist.  But some predict it’s inescapably in our future.  So what?

     Well, it’s not so much that I’m afraid of what kind of creepy crawlers may be nano-scopically affixed to my connoisseur budz…hmmm…perhaps we can make them glow with some luminescent jellyfish genes…. It’s more that I’m afraid of the creepy crawler businessmen who’d meddle with our sacred herb for profits at the cost of ethics and social responsibility—two things I hold quite dear. 

     It seems inevitable with the coming of genetic technology and the mapping of genomes that soon someone is going to complete the set for Cannabis.  This is happening.  And it’s going to bring great things.  Because the more we come to learn about this miraculous plant, the more we’re finding ways in which to use it.  And that IS great!

     But there are dark forces that would try to exert the power of patent law and proprietorship over that which we hold so dear and are learning how little we still know about.  Using minute genetic changes they would create “new” plants that they would subsequently own and control.  That’s what we need to be leery of.  That’s what we need to remain vigilant about. 

     As reported in High Times, in 2014, a team of biotech researchers in Portland started mapping the genetic structure of Cannabis.  Phylos Bioscience is doing this in an attempt to expressly protect the biodiversity of Cannabis from those who might be tempted to capitalize on its new found legalization to secure exclusive patents on select strains. 
We’ve seen it before with corn.  Farmers getting sued by huge agribusiness firms for sowing seeds that somehow manage to cross pollinate their neighbor’s patented GMO crops.  Many families have been bankrupted, losing their farms to corporate conglomerates whose tactics seem geared more towards monopolistic agricultural hegemony than feeding the world.

     This is what Cannabis researchers at Phylos Bioscience are working to stave off.  In their view, and I concur, Cannabis is much like corn in terms of its varied commercial/industrial uses and biological diversity.  It’s too valuable a commodity to allow it to be removed from the “public domain.” They fear a privatized sector that would too tightly control the biological potential of the plant.  They fear monoculture.  And rightly so, from real world experience.

     This whole thing takes on another twist when you consider that, genetically speaking, it’s almost impossible to distinguish between different strains of Cannabis in the same convention that we’ve become so used to naming them.  

     As reported in Wired Magazine a pair of Canadian botanists compared the genes of approximately 130 Cannabis plants (including hemp) and found that while there is a distinct split between hemp and sativa/indica plants the genetic difference between what we commonly refer to as “sativa” versus “indica” is much more convoluted.  What we know by convention may not express itself genetically.  So, for example, according to their research plants like Jamaican Lamb’s Bread—Bob Marley’s favorite sativa—are virtually indistinguishable genetically from indica strains like Afgani.  Interestingly, the researchers don’t seem to consider the “entourage” effect, which could account for the phenotypical differences we see expressed without a base line difference in genetic makeup. 

     In other words, while the plants may be genetically identical the circumstances of their propagation could influence minor differences—such as terpine development—like we see with other species such as roses.

     The point is that our technology at this stage may not be sophisticated enough to make meaningful distinctions in the genetic composition of Cannabis at the level needed to conclusively differentiate strains.  Regardless, diligence and vigilance demand we protect the entire species for the benefit of us all.  Diversity is key.  We must keep the Cannabis plant free.

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